Researsh & Study

Leather from Bangladesh indecent work and hidden supply chain

Timeline: 2022

Leather is a major export earner for Bangladesh. The country exports finished and semi-finished leather and leather goods to China, Hong Kong, the EU, the UK, and the US. Behind the scenes and away from the scrutiny of buyers, brands, and inspectors, the rights of tannery workers are extremely violated due to the indecent work environment and hidden supply chain. Bangladesh’s tannery workers toil for long hours in strenuous and unhealthy conditions where there is a high risk of health damage. Their wages are often below the legal minimum, and they don’t have any formal contracts, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. Employers generally display a hostile attitude towards trade unions. Moreover, disclosure of supply chain data is still in its infancy in this segment of the global leather industry. Brands and retailers hide behind complex supply chains. The lack of transparency makes it impossible to trace Bangladeshi leather used in end-products back to its origins. When labour rights violations occur, or when there is a risk of this happening, workers, trade unions, and workers’ support organizations need to know which corporate actors bear responsibility to address and remediate these violations and risks. Without such information, workers and the organizations representing or 

supporting them are left empty-handed when they seek to hold the relevant corporate actors accountable for rights violations and risks in their supply chains. Bangladeshi leather workers experience multiple vulnerabilities in employment, including migrant status, low educational background, poverty, and debt. Adding to this vulnerability are the absence of formal employment relationships and the lack of trade union representation, leaving workers with no other option than to accept poor wages and substandard conditions.

Methodology: SOMO is publishing this paper in the context of the Together for Decent Leather programme, drawing on earlier publications by the Decent Leather consortium. The paper includes results and conclusions from new research. This paper also summarises the main findings of the report “Employment and Working Conditions in Bangladesh’s Leather Industry,” published by the Bangladesh Labour Foundation (BLF) and RAPID. For their report, BLF and RAPID conducted interviews with workers in Savar, Dhaka, Bangladesh. In addition, they conducted several key informant interviews (KIIs) with tannery workers, managers, and supervisors and held focus group discussions (FGDs) with tannery workers.

Objective: The objective of the study is to investigate and expose the labour conditions and lack of transparency within the leather supply chain in Bangladesh. The study aims to highlight labor conditions, supply chain transparency, corporate responsibility, and the need for legislation.

Findings:  BLF and RAPID’s research found that many leather workers have migrated to Dhaka from poverty-stricken rural areas. Tannery owners mostly hire men and do not want to hire women because they see women as less likely to endure heavy manual work. Very few tannery workers have a written employment contract, and most lack an employee identity card. Workers received their wages in cash, and none had a pay slip. Workers mentioned that the living costs were higher in Savar. In addition, there was a lack of facilities such as medical care and schools. Tannery workers often find work through informal channels, and more than half received less than the legal minimum wage. Women’s average pay was significantly lower than men. Half of the interviewed workers worked seven days, more than 60 hours a week, and had no weekly day off as mandated by law. Many workers come into direct contact with chemicals, handling them without proper protection and training. Most workers who are not members of a trade union explained that their employer would oppose it.

Recommendations: Governments should develop and adopt legislation at the national level, in the European Union, and in other regional and international settings to oblige companies to conduct human rights due diligence. International buying companies, brands, retailers, and importers should conduct due diligence for responsible business conduct throughout the supply chain, in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct.

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